We had the pleasure of asking Brett Steel, head distiller, Co-Founder and Director, some more in depth questions about the history of Spirit Thief and the philosophy behind what they do – below is a transcript of that interview, reproduced in full.
TWL - When was Spirit Thief founded?
2015 over a few whiskies at the Lark cellar door in Hobart.
TWL - Who are the ‘faces’ of Spirit Thief?
These days in Tasmania it’s myself and I’m involved in everything from brewing and distilling, through to maturation, bottling, sales and events. Joe Cairns (one of the Directors in Melbourne) he is originally from Falmouth in Scotland and grew up in the shadows of the infamous Rosebank Distillery, he’s on the ground in Victoria distributing to bars and retail outlets. And the other two Directors are Mike King, who guides a lot of our business decisions and Kon Mantzis who is very well connected and loves his 30-year-old Laphroaig whisky!
TWL - How did the founders of Spirit Thief first meet?
Back in 2015 when I was running Tasmanian Whisky Tours, every tour would conclude at the Lark cellar door in Hobart and at the time Ian (Reed) and Jarrod (Brown) were both bartenders there. We would have a few drinks together at the end of the day and one particular evening we decided it might be an interesting experiment to try maturing some Tasmanian new-make spirit in specific wine varietal casks rather than the traditional fortified port, sherry or bourbon. I came from the wine industry in South Australia, so I thought we could find some interesting casks. We only ever intended to make 40L total!
TWL - What were they drinking at the time? 😉
At the end of the tours, back then my go-to was usually a dram of the Lark Quiet Cannon Rum and a Moo-Brew hefeweizen on tap. I dare say we would have had a Lark Classic Cask whisky or two and in those days Tim Duckett used to bring his latest Heartwood bottlings to the cellar door on Friday night’s to share with the staff and industry so maybe we were drinking those and that might have influenced the conversation too, who knows?
TWL - What drew the founders of Spirit Thief to become independent bottlers and now gypsy distillers?
In 2015, Redlands Distillery were selling 20L casks to raise capital before their own first whisky came out. We knew Dean Jackson the head-distiller there pretty well and we knew we wanted some input into the whole process. At the time they were doing yeast trials for different new-makes, so it seemed the perfect place for our first collaboration, as we could source own our casks and take them there. By the time those first bottlings sold out, Ian had started Gold Bar and Jarrod was assistant distiller at Belgrove Distillery, so we started collaborating with other Tasmanian distilleries including Shene, Adams and Belgrove where we could run the stills ourselves. But between the three of us, we had very little capital to ever grow the business. Through a chance encounter with some investors on one of my whisky tours, an opportunity arose where we could scale and grow the business into the future.
TWL - What is the driving philosophy behind Spirit Thief?
To explore a new spectrum of the flavour profiles in whisky by using re-charred varietal specific red-wine casks. We source our own casks from wineries and wine-makers we know so we have a complete understanding of what has been in them. We want to know the wine and the oak origins so we can express those styles in our whiskies. Most distilleries will dabble in a few barrels of generic ‘ex-red wine casks’ but keep the majority of their stocks in fortified tawny and apera’s and bourbon casks. From the outset we were committed to doing the opposite and building our entire portfolio around these experimental wine styles for a genuine point of difference style of whisky.
TWL - What has been your favourite aspect of working in the industry as a part of Spirit Thief?
Definitely seeing the final product as bottles on the shelves of some of the most revered whisky bars in the country, there’s a real sense of satisfaction that comes with that and in sharing your own whisky with friends and colleagues.
TWL - What has been your least favourite aspect of working in the industry as a part of Spirit Thief?
As the business grows it becomes more complex with timings and logistics. In the last twelve months we’ve dealt with China, Portugal, New Zealand and Scotland and trying to predict when and how things will be delivered is a fraught exercise, so I’m still learning to manage my expectations when it comes to international trade.
TWL - Is Spirit Thief using 100% ex red wine casks for all maturation?
Yes (and no). We do have some bourbon casks down, but they are purely as an insurance policy for marrying stock, just in case some of our wine casks do get too dry in the bondstore or need to be balanced with American oak and vanillin for instance. It’s our expectation that all our releases will be focused around specific red wine varietal casks such as grenache, tempranillo, cabernet, mataro etc.
TWL - Do you have a favourite red wine cask type to work with?
The French Oak Grenache cask that we released at the end of 2020 and is now sold out, created a beautiful whisky, so for now that has proven to be best our best cask experiment. The most exciting thing is that different varietal casks even from the same winery, do indeed result in vastly different whiskies, so we’ve got a lot to work with in our bond stores over the coming years.
TWL - How many different distilleries are you currently maturing stock from?
In total we’ve worked with seven, we may revisit some of these for future Exploration Series, but for the most part now we use the White Label stills at Huntingfield, where we also have our own still, and this will form our core range from mid 2021 releases. We now brew using an Abbaye ale yeast for fermentation and I’m really excited about the results that this style of spirit is giving our maturing whisky inside of our red-wine casks.
TWL - Are you looking to introduce a regular batch or expression?
There will be a core-range of whiskies, which we will be adding to over the coming years, but we’ll start by returning to our First Release styles which will be American Oak Shiraz and French Oak Tempranillo later this year.
TWL - Have you ever or would you ever consider bottling an already mature cask sourced from a distillery?
Yes, we are doing this right now, but our rule is that it has to fit our philosophy of being matured in a red-wine cask. A couple of years ago we found a Benrinnes 1st fill Chateau Gruard Larose cask from the Bordeaux region, and it’s a magnificent example of red-wine casks done right. So we’ll have that coming out this year as an 11 year old. The trick is making sure the cask has been re-worked rather than a straight wet-fill. Brooke Hayman from Whisky & Alement is on our tasting panel and she loves it and keeps telling me she ‘can’t stop thinking about it, is it here yet?’ Sorry Brooke – I wish it was!
TWL - What was the impetus to move to gypsy distilling from independent bottling?
When we scaled up our business in late 2018, we needed a reliable set of stills that we could use on a regular basis to make larger volumes. I knew Casey Overeem had been working on a secret contract-distilling business for about 5 years, so when we got the chance to have a sneak-peak at the venue and the equipment, we knew it would be state of the art. I wanted to learn the art of brewing and distilling, so that we had more control over matching our spirit to our barrels, so I effectively started an apprenticeship with Anthony White (Sag) who was the head distiller at White Label, learning everything I could in order to make our bespoke new-make for Spirit Thief Distilling Co.
TWL - What drew you to White Label Distillery for your gypsy distilling?
People don’t know it yet, but White Label has a wealth of experience and knowledge behind it. It’s located on the same site as the original Overeem bond store and now Overeem Distillery, Casey Overeem (our landlord) is often around for official and unofficial advice and to share tastings. He helped me build our first racks for the Spirit Thief bond store where there are now over 400 casks. Jane, his daughter, and now distiller of Overeem spent years with both Lark and Overeem in marketing and she and I were the first co-curators of Tasmanian Whisky Week back in 2015, so we’ve always had a great working relationship. Anthony White, the Head-Distiller, took over from Chris Condon (now Launceston Distillery) when he left Nant in the early years, and some of those Nant whiskies have proved to be award-winning. Anthony also spent time at Belgrove Distillery with Peter Bignell, which is a great training ground for fixing any problem that might arise in any distillery operation. Phil Gordon, also ex-Nant in the early days, project managed the distillery build in it’s final stages, while David and John, the Tasmanian owners also run very successful import/export produce businesses out of Singapore and Hong Kong, while also owning the Glass House Bar and Restaurant and the 5-star Islington Hotel here in Hobart. So really it was the extraordinary team that gave us the confidence that this was the right place with the right support for us to confidently transition into gypsy distilling.
TWL - Are you still sourcing/producing spirit at or with distilleries other than White Label?
Yes, we’re in discussions with revisiting some of the distilleries we’ve already worked with for our Exploration Series now that they have been released.
TWL - What do you see as the most exciting trend in Australian Whisky?
I’d say the desire to experiment with everything from mash bills, to yeasts and maturation casks.
TWL - What are you most excited about for the future of Spirit Thief?
Seeing where we are in 5 years. The decisions we are making today will be our whiskies in five years from now. We’ve got some really interesting things going on in our bond store now.
TWL - What do you see as the biggest challenge for Australian Whisky?
Finding our consumer markets outside of Australia and being recognised as a legitimate whisky-making nation. Finding the right export markets will be crucial to success in years to come.
TWL - What do you see as the biggest future challenge for Spirit Thief?
For us I think it will be continuing to be courageous with our production decisions. It’s easy to avoid the tried and true methods when you’re only dealing with small batch releases, but it gets harder when you grow and scale as the risks get higher. So hopefully we will always be doing new things in production that we’re excited to experiment with.
TWL - Where is the best place to try Spirit Thief releases?
By joining The Whisky List online tasting coming up in February of course! We’ll be trying six of our whiskies, including a work-in-progress American Oak Tempranillo that nobody has tried yet. Otherwise you’ll find us in a lot of the best whisky bars in the major cities. (Thanks for the plug Brett – looking forward to it! TWL)
TWL - Where is the best place to buy Spirit Thief releases?
Either from our website online spiritthief.com.au or from independent bottle shops in Victoria and Tasmania. We’ll be branching out to other regions this year as more stock becomes available.
TWL - What releases can we look forward to in the coming months?
In February we have our first official cask strength releases including a Belgrove French Oak Mataro casks and our Adams Heavily Charred American Oak Shiraz. Towards the middle of the year we’ll begin the core range with our own French Oak Tempranillo and American Oak Shiraz, and our Cabernet casks will come out at the end of 2021.
TWL - Besides Australian or Tasmanian whisky do you have a favourite Scotch, American, Irish or Japanese Distillery?
Yes! For Scotch it’s Longrow/Springbank, the Longrow Red series was an early influence on Spirit Thief’s direction. I’m also really enjoying the new Bladnoch’s. American – I’m a big fan of early Balcones and the more recent Westward Oregon Stout cask release. Irish – I love anything Redbreast including the recent Lustau casks and I’d love to try the 27-year-old at some stage.
TWL - Go to whisky when you just want to relax and unwind?
I’m biased but when at home our First Release French Oak Tempranillo by Spirit Thief, I love knowing there’s a signature style that we’re trying to create. I’m also enjoying Archie Rose single malt and if I’m out then to finish the night a Jameson’s on the rocks, it’s the ultimate ‘don’t have to think about it’ relaxing whisky.
TWL - First whisky love?
Ardbeg 10 in a London bar in the West End in the early 2000’s. It was like discovering foreign films for the first time when all I ever knew was American cinema. I was awakened to the possibilities!
TWL - Favourite non-whisky drink? – cocktail or non-whisky spirit
We’ve started drinking Negroni’s at home lately made from Cotswold’s dry gin and I’ve become quite partial to them. My wife loves them and she doesn’t drink whisky! So it’s a cocktail we can enjoy together!
TWL – Thanks for your time Brett 😊
The Whisky List